Changing Brand Perception, One Smile at a Time

Andrew Butler

The Samaritans are known throughout Massachusetts as a nonprofit that works to alleviate despair, isolation, distress, and suicidal feelings among individuals through its anonymous helpline. Samaritan volunteers listen with kindness and compassion, and without judgment.

So why does a group with such an important mission, which annually saves thousands of lives and provides grief support to those in need, have trouble raising money?

The harsh truth is the stigma associated with suicide and depression often dissuades businesses and potential supporters from partnering with the organization. People’s discomfort with those subjects overrides their admiration for the work the Samaritans do. I’m ashamed to admit that as much as we love the opportunity to do great work for a good cause, my reaction when they approached us about helping them develop a new campaign was, “Whoa, the suicide guys. This might be a depressing assignment.”

Yet my reaction also served as a wake-up call about why a new campaign was needed, and what it would have to entail. A traditional marketing campaign wasn’t the answer. People know what the Samaritans do. Our goal was to change the way people think and feel about them. No more cringing and turning away.

The catalyst was a conversation we had with Samaritans’ Executive Director Roberta Hurtig: “We want every person to know that they matter in the world and realize all the good that they actually have to live for,” she told us. She said nothing about suicide, nothing about depression. And, we decided, neither would our campaign.

To that end, we created a grassroots marketing campaign that kicks off with the holiday season. The goal of “Happier Boston” is to rebrand the nonprofit and shine a bright but different light on the Samaritans' work by creating opportunities for the Samaritans to help people feel better about their lives in small but meaningful ways.

Granted, it’s a bit risky to rebrand an organization by staying away from the themes and topics they’re most clearly identified with. And at first, the Samaritans' leaders were a bit startled at the idea. But then they realized that “Happier Boston” is not about thinking you can prevent suicides with smiley faces.

It's about encouraging small acts of kindness to increase happiness among the general population of the city. It's about raising awareness for an organization that has done so much good for so long. It's about changing what first comes to people's minds when they see a fundraising appeal for Samaritans. And it's about fostering corporate partnerships so those phones can be answered, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Along with new graphics and a dedicated website, the “Happier Boston” campaign includes small-scale “social experiments” such as:

- “Breakout elevator a capella sessions” at prominent office buildings
- “Commuter welcoming committees” at key Boston transit locations
- “Orange You Happy” events, where Samaritan volunteers greet commuters with a smile and fresh oranges imprinted with “Orange you happy?”
- A photo-sharing site featuring Boston’s “happy places” to start conversations and get people connecting about things that make them feel good.

Local notables like Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and Boston Mayor Tom Menino will join the cause, recording blues songs in “pop-up concerts” about the small things that bring people down. For the mayor, it’s potholes. For Ortiz, it's October. (OK, for Red Sox Nation maybe these aren’t such small things, but the point is everyone gets the blues).

Through this proactive, multimedia campaign, we believe that people can be directed to focus on the positive and see the Samaritans and their work in a different way. We recognized it was a nonconventional approach, and not without a little bit of a risk. But we’ve learned some important things.

1. Advertising isn’t always the answer. There are other, sometimes more powerful ways to get your message across.

2. Listen to your clients. Let them do the talking. This may be anathema to many in the agency world, but we would not have come up with our creative ideas without an understanding of what our client is really about and what its volunteers believe is their calling.

3. See the opportunity in whatever you the project is. No one was initially excited about working for a suicide-prevention organization. But we knew that it would only be as good as we made it, and that was completely up to us. People now feel good about this project because we’ve done great work, for a really worthy organization, and we have the chance to help make people feel happy.

4. Harness the dynamics of human behavior and action. People are influenced by what those around them do. Giving people opportunities to act in certain ways has the potential to encourage similar actions and go “viral” in a more literal sense.

What if you tried your own social experiment? Walk around your office or your neighborhood and say hello to everyone you encounter. Not just your friends, but random people you see every day and just walk past. See how that makes you feel. Probably happier. And hopefully, it will inspire them to do the same.